FFF Friday: “She offered me more advice on how I could ‘try harder’…”

Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.

Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.

While debating my HuffPo article on Twitter, a few people took me to task for being elitist – the implication being that only wealthy, privileged women feel the pressure to breastfeed. They mentioned that programs like WIC make it difficult for women to breastfeed, forcing formula on moms and not educating parents on the benefits of exclusive nursing. I know that historically, WIC has been the biggest purchaser of infant formula, and this reputation was accurate at one point in time. Yet, one of the groups most prominently represented in the FFF audience are WIC mothers – and they all speak of a militant brand of breastfeeding promotion which provides little real support and guidance and plenty of guilt, pressure, and admonishment.

This week’s story is from one of these moms, and I hope that her bravery in coming forward will encourage other parents to speak out. The more we call out the offenders who make breastfeeding promotion an abuse instead of the benefit it should be – the more we call them out BY NAME, whether it be a particular hospital, organization, or website – the better we can hold these people accountable. And my hope is by doing so, we can implore (and assist) them to  better serve families, and provide REAL support for the women and babies who need it.

Oh, and apologies for the lack of original posts as of late – we just moved and I’ve had spotty internet and zero time. Should be back in the next week….until then-

Happy Friday, fearless ones,



Sarah’s Story

When my daughter was first born, she had problems breathing, and the doctors whisked her away to the NICU. After a few hours of observation, they called me in my hospital room and asked if they could give her formula, or if I wanted to come down and breastfeed. Of course I wanted to breastfeed! Everyone told me how breastfed babies were healthier, stronger, and smarter. She was having problems already, so I wanted to give her every possible advantage that I could. When I first fed her, she latched right away and had a strong suck reflex. I was so happy because I’d heard that some babies aren’t very good at breastfeeding.

Later that day, my daughter was released from the NICU and joined me in my hospital room. She nursed on me for 15-20 minutes every hour and half. A lactation consultant came to check on us and asked how breastfeeding was going. “Great!” I said. She tried to show me how to express my colostrum, but nothing came out. She said that it could be because my daughter had just fed, so not to worry, and that my milk should “come in” in 3-5 days.

I was released the next day, and took my baby home. The hospital made sure that I scheduled a follow-up appointment with a pediatrician the next day just to check on her. When my husband and I took her in, the doctor said he saw some jaundice and had us go to the lab to get blood drawn to check her bilirubin level.

I got a call at 5:30 on a Friday from the doctor and knew something was wrong. He told me that her bilirubin level was high and that he recommended supplementing with formula until my milk came in so that she would pass the bilirubin more quickly. I’d heard that introducing a bottle too early could jeopardize breastfeeding, and I really didn’t want to give her formula (after all, “experts agree, the breast is best”). When I brought this up with the doctor, he said he understood but that he still wanted me to supplement, but to continue to breastfeed before giving it to her. He scheduled a re-check of her bilirubin for the next day at the lab.

This next part is difficult for me to write…

I was so worried about formula feeding my daughter that I went against the doctor’s advice and decided not to give her formula. At her second bilirubin check, I got another call from the doctor (on a Saturday!). He said that her levels had gone up and that he was really worried. I told him I hadn’t given her the formula yet, and he strongly advised that I start as soon as possible. I conceded and began, reluctantly, giving my daughter small amounts of formula that evening.

The next afternoon, the doctor called again to ask how she was doing. I told him that she hadn’t pooped yet, and he said that was o.k. I then told him that she hadn’t peed since the night before. He was alarmed, began asking questions, and advised me to take her to the ER. I was panicked. I didn’t know what was going on with my daughter, and my husband and I literally ran out of the house and sped the whole way to the hospital.

When we got there, I told them what was going on, and the nurse helped me feed her through a tiny tube with a syringe of formula attached to my nipple (this, to encourage breastfeeding). Afterward, they had me pump with an electric hospital pump, but nothing came out. I was told that it may take up to 7 days for my milk to come in, so not to lose hope.

When the doctor came in, she diagnosed my baby with dehydration. I felt awful! I thought it was my fault that she was dehydrated because my milk hadn’t come in yet (I hadn’t yet realized that the reason she was dehydrated was because I had waited to give her formula. I was so worried about the “evils” of formula feeding that I actually jeopardized my baby’s health). Later that evening, after she’d peed and pooped, they released her, and I was given the instructions to continue to tube feed her formula until my milk came in, and to manually pump my breasts six time a day.

5 days after giving birth, I still hadn’t felt a “let down” of milk, my breasts hadn’t gotten hard like I was told they would, and I still wasn’t able to express anything.  I began drinking “mother’s milk tea”, and immediately called my doctor’s office, where they referred me to Lactation. I made the first available appointment for later that week, hoping that I wouldn’t have to go because my milk would come in, and things would progress “normally”.

On day 10 when the appointment finally arrived, my milk still hadn’t “come in”. Or so I thought. With the lactation consultant, I began pumping, and produced 1 ml of milk from each breast. What I thought was just colostrum, was in fact my milk. Apparently, I just had a low supply. She advised me to start pumping after every nursing and to take an herb called fenugreek three times a day. She told me that it takes 2-3 weeks for milk to fully come in, so it was still possible to increase my supply. Phew, I thought. I can still breastfeed! She then gave me a list of places I could rent an electric hospital pump, so my husband and I wouldn’t have to do it manually anymore.

The next day I called and rented an electric pump. Day and night I breastfed, bottle fed formula, pumped, washed and dried my pumping equipment. By the time I was done it was time to change a diaper or feed again. I was barely sleeping, so exhausted at one point that I was hallucinating people talking in my home. I cried, and cried, and cried, feeling that I was failing my daughter. After a week of this, I called Lactation again and asked if there was anything else I could do because, after all of this, I was still only getting about 5 ml of milk total. She said that there were some medications I could take, but that they rarely helped. Even so, I asked my doctor about it at my next appointment. She said that the one they prescribe most often caused depression, so she didn’t recommend it (I have a history of depression and anxiety). She then looked at me sincerely and said, “You have my permission to stop breastfeeding.” I started crying.

I finally resigned to doing both formula and breast milk, collecting enough to give my daughter a bottle of breast-milk every three days. I still felt guilty, but was finally coming to terms with the fact that exclusively breastfeeding my daughter was not an option for me. That was until I went to my WIC appointment.

Every new mother who is breastfeeding, even partially, is required to attend a new mother breastfeeding class in order to receive their WIC checks. The class, made up of women and their newborn babies, touted breastfeeding as the end-all be-all of motherhood. At the end of the class, a breastfeeding “peer counselor” came in and, one by one, asked us how breastfeeding was going. When it was my turn, I was blatantly honest, and said “it’s going horribly.” I was pressed for more information, so I told my story (a shorter version of what I’ve told here), ending in “the lactation consultant told me that there wasn’t anything else I could do and my doctor gave me permission to stop breastfeeding.” At that, the peer counselor scoffed, and said “that’s not what we like to hear. There’s always more you can do.”

After the class, she had me fill out a form for a peer counselor, rent another hospital-grade pump, and offered me more advice on how I could “try harder.” Again, I felt that sweet sting of failure, the guilt that bubbles up inside you because you can’t produce enough milk for your baby, and struggled to fight back tears. I agreed to continue “trying” by pumping and nursing. I went back to nursing, bottle feeding, pumping, and cleaning. After another week with no improvement, my husband intervened, and told me that I had to stop before I went insane. I knew he was right, but I still cried. I just couldn’t let go of the image of breastfeeding my baby. If it was so much better for the baby, like everyone said, then why would God deprive me of the ability to produce enough milk? Thoughts like this wrapped around my brain like a noose, slowly strangling me.

When the peer counselor called to check in, and I told her that my milk supply still wasn’t increasing, she suggested I take prescription medication. I told her that my doctor had advised against it, and she said that she would check with her supervisor. I don’t know what qualifications her supervisor had, but I’m almost sure it didn’t include a doctorate of medicine. Then, and only then, did I finally build up the courage to tell her I didn’t want to try any more.

In the end, I realized that it wasn’t a choice for me to formula-feed my daughter, it was a necessity. Looking back, if I had just formula-fed her to begin with she wouldn’t have had jaundice, she wouldn’t have been dehydrated, and she wouldn’t have gone to the ER during her first week of life. What was best for my daughter was not to continually berate myself for not being able to breastfeed her, not to take time away from her by pumping and cleaning, but to be present with her, to do the best thing for her – to give her formula!

I still struggle with feelings of guilt, sadness at giving up what is deemed by society to be “natural” and “healthier” for my daughter. When I go in to get my WIC checks, I grimace at the posters on the walls of the cute babies with thought bubbles saying things like “I don’t want formula; I want your breast milk, Mommy.” I can only take solace in the fact that giving my daughter formula saved her life, and probably mine as well.

Share your story for an upcoming FFF Friday: email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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